Troops returning from war without work

Oregon National Guard Specialist Troy Sartain »Play Video
National Guard Specialist Troy Sartain has been gone for a year, working with a maintenance team in Iraq. When he returns, he'll be fighting for a job along with hundreds of other Oregon Iraq-war veterans.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Nearly 3,000 Oregon National Guard soldiers will come home this month, with many of them unsure of how they'll support their families.

"You learn to take things step-by-step and moment-by-moment; that's the only way to survive a deployment," said Victoria Sartain, a local Army wife whose husband returns this month. "You can't look at the huge, big picture all the time because it will break you."

Victoria isn't talking about the dangers overseas; she's talking about her husband's chances of getting a job when he comes home.

National Guard Specialist Troy Sartain has been gone for a year, working with a maintenance team in Iraq. When he returns, he'll be fighting for a job along with more than 800 other Oregon veterans who have no job waiting for them when they return.

"With the economy the way it is, employers can be choosy," said Victoria, who has been mothering four children while her husband's away at war. "There are so many people that are unemployed – they can chose who they want to hire."

Help on the way?
Oregon already has among the nation's highest percentages of state unemployment. Consequently, the soldiers coming home also must fight for the same jobs other unemployed Oregonians need.

However, there may be help.

On Monday, two Oregon Congressmen – Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Kurt Schrader – held a video conference from Salem with soldiers in Iraq. The topic? Jobs.

Sen. Wyden said he has been trying "unsuccessfully" to get Congress to continue paying National Guard members up to 90 days after they return home. That way, Wyden said, they can have a financial cushion while looking for a job.

Wyden was successful in getting Oregon some federal money to set up a Web site to connect Oregon veterans with employers. The site, which is under construction at FortOregon.com, is open to anyone looking for information on the post-military employment process.

His idea for a 90-day cushion, however, has yet to be passed.

What's already in place?
Guard members do have some backup when they return. They're eligible for expanded G.I. Benefits for free college tuition – for themselves, their spouse or their children.

Also, Guard members in federal technician positions – where they work during the week as well as the one weekend per month – are eligible for state unemployment if they were laid off from that position. Active guard reserve members also are eligible for unemployment under the same circumstances.

However, those on active duty orders – like Troy – are eligible for unemployment only if they had a federal technician position and where laid off. Traditional reservists soldiers also are not eligible for unemployment coverage, unless they left a job that is no longer there.

(Note that anyone who was fired from their job while deployed is protected by the "Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act," which means those soldiers have the right to sue their former employer.)

Since Victoria doesn't work, and Troy didn't leave a job behind, one of them will have to join the job hunt to bring home the bacon. "It takes a lot of faith to get through this - being a single parent of four kids" while her husband's away, she tells KATU. As for the future, she said she tries "not to think about it."

Victoria does have a little help on her side. For the past year she has volunteered for the National Guard, directing veterans and their families to the very services her husband may have to use when he returns. The Sartain family is already on housing assistance.

That's one reason Wyden said he'll continue to fight for jobless benefits when Oregon guard members return.

"I'm going to stay at it," he told us Monday, "until every one of those individuals – ever single one – is in a position to support their family."